Zero has a cinematic opening: a man stands in a suit and 1920s hat in a moonlight-spotlight playing the harmonica. It is an instantly recognisable image of the lonely African-American on a street corner and a well-placed introduction to a beginning, a mood and a liveness. The figure is also a cliché and I am surprised at this since Clod Ensemble’s strength usually lies in playing with the ways of seeing a performer or a situation. This presentation of something very known is a little disappointing.
White words projected into the dark background announce that the work is in 5 acts, which, similar to the opening figure, serves as a telling, a recognisable image (the theatrical device of how plays unfold) and as a cliché. Each act also has a collection of weather forecast words to prescribe the section’s mood of the live music, the dance movements and I guess, the emotional life of the performers-characters. I wondered if this use of pathetic fallacy, e.g. “sudden outbreaks of rain”, was purposefully understated, given Zero’s King Lear/Hurricane Katrina inspirations.
Alongside sung lyrics, fragments of found text are used throughout the work which are mostly made up of religious preachers, news broadcasts and other social commentary and I wonder if their usage is to agree with their content, to scrutinize their content or reveal their content as absurd. I don’t know. The text content is frequently undermined with humour – the audience laugh at the end of a segment in recognition of truth or folly, which normalises what has been heard. I don’t know how to feel about gearing each section of text towards a punch line. There is something of a reveal there but also something of an anti-climax.
The texts point to positions of power with women being referenced to as enablers, as disappearing and as chickening out of a bungee jump before being pushed off by a man. Additional frequent references to families, children and antisocial behaviour again point to women and women’s failure. These texts joined with the weather updates are harmfully reductive and uncomfortably dated in terms of aligning storms, clouds and rain to female emotional states. I don’t know where to place the women on stage in relation to this. All the text samples always get a laugh and I can’t help think that there is nothing here that challenges gender norms or perhaps more relevantly to the concerns of Zero, pushes the work forward into new or unpredictable territory – the territory beyond a comforting dance audience chuckle.
The work is full of the instantly knowable. I recognise the blues, I know the movement’s thrilling tricks but unfortunately I rarely connect with the deeper undercurrents. The music contains a complexity, a rootedness and a passion that the set up of the choreography often works against. The dance of Act 1 contains a formalism with classical lines and linear pathways. As the Acts progress, the movement becomes freer, more intricate and complex but it never quite unravels or lets me in. Words are heard like, ‘alcohol induced mayhem’ but there is never mayhem or calamity on stage even though I get the sense that the aim is to achieve that. I feel a little like the chaos of the texts and the stormy grit of the music is often lost in translation upon reaching the dancing bodies.
The work is also full of interruptions. Images are strong but not left long enough to resonate. Songs, text and dances are brief and so the character of the work becomes to promise but leave incomplete. It is a shame to interrupt and move on or discard. It makes me feel very uncertain and perhaps a bit dance and theatre illiterate. I feel like I’m not getting it even though there are countless, transparent gestures towards it. I know Clod to have a rigorous, passionate working process full of depth and a multiplicity of references, and yet, what I see is a lacking and (I am afraid to say it) an emptiness, not of effort or skill but of soul. I frequently found it hard to connect viscerally to what I saw before me.
However, there were moments punctuated with life .The lyrics ‘feel like heaven’ reach my ears and the whole company spread throughout the space become luminous with generosity and Ramina Nagabczynska’s beautifully confident eye contact. I don’t think their movement quality was markedly different than at any other point but the composition of bodies somehow situated them within the music in a cohesive way. Alessandra Ruggeri shone with a casual ease throughout the night and Karima El Amrani had many a luscious moment whether in a silver dress or brown suit, rippling, wringing and twisting like a silken tornado.
Spirited duets and moments where the ensemble displayed a smooth elegance really played to the strength of the cast in their entirety: actors, dancers and musicians with their fluid movements, musical talent, fingers, torsos, hands and vocal chords. The section where John Evans climbs off the platform where the musicians are to come sit and play his guitar closer to the performers had soul too. Zoe Bywater jammed along, all shimmering hips and quicksteps and this moment evoked a tenderness where moments before had pointed to tenderness without getting there.
The general opulence of the costumes of long silk dresses in opulent blues, greys and greens which drip with nostalgia along with the 1920s suits complete with braces tell of a very different perspective to the roots of Deep South blues. The downtrodden and enslaved are juxtaposed with the upright and economically secure but the tension is never quite fulfilled. The most effective set of relations between these two worlds and perhaps how the shimmer of power and wealth is easily shattered, is seen near the work’s end when the dancers begin to self destruct in repetitive dying sequences and finish in a haunting mound of bodies complete with a soundtrack of buzzing flies.
I leave the theatre uncertain. Uncertain about what the work was meant to take me towards and unsure of its resonance. I leave unsure about what I expected to see and what I did see and how much of the work I didn’t get because of my ignorance and how much I didn’t get because of tastes. In particular, since they are a company I admire, I leave very unsure how to write.
Direction and Choreography: Suzy Wilson
Music: Paul Clark
Lyrics: Peggy Shaw and Paul Clark
Design Sarah Blenkinsop
Lighting Hansjörg Schmidt
Movement created with and performed by: Zoe Bywater, Robert Bell, Sarah Cameron, Karima El Amrani, Antonia Grove, Maciej Kuźmiński, Ramona Magabczynska, Uri Roodner and Alexandra Ruggeri
Vocals and Harmonica: Johny Mars
Vocals: Hazel Holder
Cello: Christopher Allan
Accordion: Ian Watson
Trombone: Annie Whitehead
Drums: Vanessa Domonique
Guitar: John Evans